By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published October 5, 2017
HAPEVILLE—On Sept. 28, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos named St. John the Evangelist School in Hapeville a 2017 National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, the school’s third time to earn the designation. The Hapeville school received the honor previously in 1994 and 2010.
The Council for American Private Education nominates exemplary, high performing non-public schools, including parochial and independent schools, for the Blue Ribbon award. To be eligible to be nominated, the school must have scored in the top 15 percent on a national assessment test.
St. John the Evangelist is the first Atlanta archdiocesan school to receive the award three times. Christ the King School, Atlanta, and St. Jude the Apostle School, Atlanta, have each won the award twice.
Students, teachers and parents gathered for the surprise afternoon announcement, which was livestreamed in the gymnasium of the school’s new enrichment center. A collective cheer arose and students waved blue and white pom-poms as the school’s name and photo appeared on the big screen.
Principal Karen Vogtner said the Blue Ribbon award is an acknowledgement of the entire community.
“What an honor,” Vogtner told the student assembly. “This award is all of you: all of your hard work. All of your teachers, who give you challenging curriculum.”
She also thanked parents and Father Michael Onyekuru, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, “who helps us to know more about Jesus.”
“What I love about the Blue Ribbon is this—every single person in this school contributes to the excellence. This a joint award for everybody,” said Vogtner.
Diane Starkovich, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, spent the hours leading up to the announcement by crunching numbers about repeat Blue Ribbon winners.
“You all are in the top one percent of Blue Ribbon Schools in the country,” shared Starkovich. “Congratulations, boys and girls.”
The superintendent said that from 1982 to 2016, more than 7,791 schools received the Blue Ribbon School of Excellence Award. Of those schools, only 79 were three-time winners.
“It is quite an accomplishment, since three-time recognized schools represent .99 percent of all who have received recognition. St. John the Evangelist is indeed in very elite company across this country,” she said.
In addition to the recognition, principals and teacher leaders from Blue Ribbon schools are called upon to give presentations at professional meetings about best practices. Educators visit winner schools to learn about promising leadership and instructional strategies, and schools are often profiled in Department of Education publications.
The department will recognize school leaders in a Nov. 6-7 awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Other Atlanta Catholic schools honored in previous years as Blue Ribbon schools include archdiocesan elementary schools Holy Redeemer, Johns Creek; Immaculate Heart of Mary, Atlanta; Our Lady of the Assumption, Atlanta; Our Lady of Victory, Tyrone; Queen of Angels, Roswell; St. Catherine of Siena, Kennesaw; St. John Neumann Regional, Lilburn; St. Joseph, Marietta; and St. Thomas More, Decatur. Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell was the first archdiocesan high school to be named a Blue Ribbon School. Independent Catholic schools that are previous honorees are Holy Spirit Preparatory School in Atlanta and Pinecrest Academy in Cumming, awarded for its kindergarten through 12th-grade program.
The 2017 Blue Ribbon awards honored 342 total schools with 50 of those being private or parochial schools nominated by CAPE.
“From our awesome students to the exemplary administration, teachers and staff and with the support of an engaged parent community, St. John the Evangelist exemplifies the best of Catholic education and our commitment to providing an academic education second to none,” said Starkovich.
Secretary DeVos called the winners visionaries and innovators.
“You have much to teach us: some of you personalize student learning, others engage parents and communities in the work and life of your local schools and still others develop strong and forward-thinking leaders from among your teaching staff,” said DeVos.
St. John the Evangelist has 315 students in pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. It was founded in 1954.
The school has a house system and representatives of its House of Fortitude and House of Justice led the student body in cheers to celebrate the award. The school’s chorus sang “Great Are You, Lord.”
School ambassadors Trinity Henry and Leah Boesen, both eighth-graders, know St. John the Evangelist is a special place.
“I love how it’s just one, big happy family,” said Trinity.
It means a lot to Henry that the principal knows every student’s name and their family members.
“She comes and pats us on the back and says, ‘good job,’” said Trinity about her principal.
Boesen said every student fits in at SJES.
“I like how diverse it is—racially and culturally,” she said.
They both agreed the school is centered on Jesus and God.
Their classmate Tanya Gopar, also a school ambassador, attended a public school before coming to St. John the Evangelist. She learned an important life lesson in the process.
“I learned not to be ashamed of my faith,” said Tanya.
Parent volunteers presented school administrators with blue floral arrangements to mark the occasion. The celebratory rally opened and closed with prayer.
“Everything we do here, we do for the honor and glory of God,” said Vogtner.